TO JOHN JOHN FR BOGQUEEN: Out of the pool, into the peat. Found something/someone you might want to see. Runner 6729.12 for the path, just follow the footsteps moi left you. Ta, lover boy, and mind the coyotes.
Saskatchewan, Dominion of Canada, August 9, A.D. 1959
Bronze flowed along the eagle’s broad wings as it banked into the light of the setting sun. Jim’s eyes followed it, bright with wonder. His horse’s russet flanks felt hot and solid under his thighs. He curved his lower back and slid down a ways on the saddle.
Grandpa had clucked his palomino mare ahead a dozen or so steps, out to the hill’s crest. The old man had turned and now squinted steadily at Jim.
“What do you see this time?” Grandpa asked.
“It’s just how you said it’d be,” Jim answered. He remembered what his grandfather had told him last winter. There’d been a foot of wind-hardened snow blanketing this hilltop, and the deep drifts in the valley below had been sculpted into fantastic patterns. They’d covered the six miles from the farm in the morning’s early hours, jogging overland and using the elk-gut snowshoes Grandpa had made the day Jim was born, nine years past. And he remembered what Grandpa had talked about that day—all the old, old stories, the places and lives that had slipped into and out of the family’s own history, on their way into legend. Batoche, Riel, McLaren and the Redcoats, and Sitting Bull himself. It was the family’s Métis blood, the old fur trade routes that crossed the plains, and of course the buffalo. All a part of Jim now, and especially this particular hilltop, where heroes had once gathered. Where they had talked with the Old One, whose bones slept under the central pile of stones.
Jim let his gaze drop and scan the space between the two horses. The pile remained—it had barely broken the snow’s skin last winter, but now the hub of boulders threw its lumpy shadow across the west half of the Medicine Wheel, and the rows of rocks that spoked out from it completed a perfect circle around them.
“Who Hunts the Devil,” Grandpa said quietly.
Jim nodded. “The Old One.”
The wind blew dry and hot, and Jim licked his parched lips as Grandpa’s blunt French and Plains Cree accent rolled the words out slow and even, “He was restless in those days. But now … just silence.” The old man swung his mount round until the two horses and their riders faced each other. Grandpa’s weathered face looked troubled. “I’m thinking he might be gone, you know.”
Jim’s gaze flicked away, uneasily studied the prairie beyond. The sun’s light was crimson behind a curtain of dust raised by the Johnsons’ combines.
Grandpa continued, “Could be good for wheat, this section.…”
The boy spoke slowly. “But that’d mean plowing all this up—the Medicine Wheel, the tepee rings—”
“So it would. The old times have passed, goes my thinking. Your dad, well, soon he’ll be taking over things, and that’s the way it should be.”
Jim slumped farther in his saddle, still staring at the sunset. Dad didn’t like being called Métis, always said he was three-quarters white and that was good enough and he didn’t show his Indian blood besides. Jim’s own blood was even thinner, but his grandfather’s stories had woken things in him, deep down inside. The boy cleared his throat. “Where did your grandpa meet Sitting Bull again?”
The old man smiled. “You know.”
“Wood Mountain. He’d just come up after killing Custer. He was on the run, and the Redcoats were on their way from the East, only they were weeks away still.”
“And that’s when—?”
“Sitting Bull gave your grandpa his rifle. A gift, because your grandpa spoke wise words—”
“Don’t know how wise they were,” Grandpa cut in; then he fell silent, his gaze far away.
Jim said nothing. He’d never heard doubt before, not in the telling of the stories, especially not in this one.
After a long moment filled only by the wind and an impatient snort from the palomino, Grandpa spoke on, “He told Sitting Bull that the fight was over. That the Americans would come after him, hunt him down. That the White Chief couldn’t live without avenging the slaughter—that the White Chief’s justice counted only with the whites, not for Indian dogs. Sitting Bull was tired, and old. He was ready for those words. That’s why he called them wise. So after McLaren arrived, he took his people back. He surrendered, and was starved then murdered. It would’ve been a better death, I think, if he’d kept his rifle.”
Jim straightened and met his grandfather’s eyes. “I don’t want this plowed up, Grandpa. Maybe Who Hunts the Devil is gone, but maybe he isn’t. Maybe he’s just sleeping. If you wreck the Medicine Wheel, he’ll be mad.”
“Your father wants to plant wheat, Jim. That’s all there is to it. And the old times are gone. Your father understands this. You have to, too.”
“Once the harvest’s in, we’ll come out here and turn over the land.”
“It’s empty, you see. The buffalo are gone. I look around … and it’s not right. It’ll never be right again.”
“Yes, it will, Grandpa. I’ll make it right.”
The old man’s smile was broken, wrenching at Jim’s heart. “Listen to your father, Jim. His words are wise.”
Val Marie, Saskatchewan Precinct, June 30, Anno Confederation 14
William Potts opened his eyes to the melting snow puddled around his hiking boots. He rubbed his face, working out the aching creases around his mouth. A smile to make people nervous, but it was getting harder to wear.
Slouched in an antique chair and half-buried by his bootsuit, he turned his head an inch, to meet the eye of a diamondback rattlesnake probing the glass wall beside him. An eye milky white, the eye of a seer proselytized limbless and mute, but scabbed with deadly knowledge all the same.
The aquarium sat on a stained oak end table, its lower third layered in sand and gravel. Stone slabs crowded the near end. A sun-bleached branch stripped of bark lay in the center, angled upward in faint salute. At the far end, two small buttons of cacti, possibly alive, possibly dead—hard to tell despite the tiny bright red flowers.
The snake was avoiding its tree, succinctly coiled on a stone slab, its subtle dun-colored designs pebbled by scales that glittered beneath the heat lamp.
William watched its tongue flick out, once, twice, three times, then stop.
He grunted. “We are rife in threes.”
At the crowded basement’s far end, Old Jim rummaged through a closet, his broad hunched back turned to William.
“This guy’s eyes,” William said, frowning at the snake, “are all milky white.” He lowered his voice. “Time to shed, then? Tease off the old, here’s something new. Into the new where you don’t belong. You know that, don’t you? Because your sins are old.”
Old Jim pulled out a walking stick, a staff, and dropped it clattering to the floor. “It’s here someplace,” he said. “I hid it when that land claim went through. Figured Jack Tree and his boys would swoop down and take everything, you know? The snake’s blind, son. Burned blind.”
William shifted in the narrow chair. “Conjured by thy name, huh? Makes you easier to catch, I suppose.” The snake lifted its head and softly butted the glass. Once, twice, three times. “One day,” William told it, “you’ll wear my skin. And I’ll wear yours. We’ll find out who slips this mortal coil first.” He shifted again and let his gaze travel over the room’s contents.
Old Jim’s basement was also the town museum. Thick with dust and the breath of ghosts. Glass-topped tables housed chert and chalcedony arrowheads, ground-stone axes and mauls, steatite tobacco pipes, rifle flints and vials full of trade beads. White beads, red beads, turquoise beads. Furniture shaped by homesteaders’ rough, practical hands filled every available space. Cluttering the walls: faded photographs, racks of pronghorn, elk, deer, heads of wolf, bear, coyote, old provincial license plates from before the North American Confederation, quilts, furs, historical maps. A fossilized human femur dug out from three-million-year-old gravel beds that, before the Restitution, would have been called an anomaly and deftly ignored.
William smiled. “Three million ten thousand years of history jammed into this basement, Jim. Exactly where it belongs. In perfect context. In perfect disorder. With a blind snake curating the whole mess.”
He ran a hand through his unkempt brown hair. “This stuff ever been cataloged, Jim? Diligently recorded and filed on memchip, slipped into envelope, envelope sealed and labeled, inserted into a storage box, box stacked on other boxes, shifted to a dark, deep shelf beside the rat poison, behind the locked door in the university basement a few hundred miles from here? And you presume the guise of science? Hah.”
Old Jim didn’t answer.
Answers are extinct. “I’m an expert on extinction,” William said. “A surveyor of the exhausted, the used up, notions made obsolete by their sheer complexity. It’s a world bereft of meaning, and who knows, who cares? I don’t and I do. The last gasps of a dying science. The last walkabout, the last vision quest. We’ve digitalized the world, Jim, and here I am riding the spark...